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Tobias Carroll

Remade Bodies and Surreal Spaces: Where to Start With the Work of Jeff VanderMeer

Some writers straddle genres, but Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction seems bound and determined to encompass as many styles and genres as it possibly can. Looking for metafictional body horror? Perhaps a detective novel set against the wars of an empire? Or maybe a paranoid thriller situated in the midst of a disintegrating landscape is more your speed. VanderMeer’s fiction brings together unlikely elements, smashes them together, and revives them with a frenetic urgency.

Delving into his fiction only showcases part of VanderMeer’s literary contributions. In recent years, he’s contributed introductions to new editions of books by the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Kirsten Bakis. Working in tandem with his wife, acclaimed editor Ann VanderMeer, he’s also involved in the publishing side of things: Cheeky Frawg Books has, most recently, released a massive collection of work by the surreal and dynamic Finnish writer Leena Krohn.

Keeping in mind, then, that this overview is not meant to be exhaustive, here’s a look at some of the shared settings, overlapping themes, and unsettling locales you’ll find in Jeff VanderMeer’s books.

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Five Tales in Which History Meets Horror

Using a historical setting for a tale of monsters or terror can be a reliable way to increase suspense and provide a counterpoint for the horrors described therein. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe summoning up a bygone age—and its accompanying menaces—in “The Masque of the Red Death” or, more recently, John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake setting their graphic novel Kros: Hallowed Ground against the backdrop of the Battle of Gettysburg, it’s the kind of narrative decision that can accentuate certain themes and ratchet up the tension even further.

But a specific point in history can also summon up a number of more mundane terrors over the course of a narrative: totalitarian governments, horrific attitudes about race and gender, and unrestrained abuses coming from the powerful all come to mind. Sometimes reading a story set in the past can haunt us for reasons other than literal monsters that lurk on the page. What follows is a look at five books that explore the demons of the past along with monsters in the past…

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The Creeping Resurgence of Literary Horror: Six Places to Start

One could convincingly argue that horror with a literary spin on it has increased its profile in recent years, with writers like Victor LaValle, Karen Russell, and Brian Evenson tapping into a potent sense of dread and gut-wrenching terror. That said, writers on the literary side of things have always had a fondness for the horrific. Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori both feature sinister supernatural figures and moments of white-knuckle fear, for instance.

Still, we do seem to be at a point in time when the literary and the horrific have begun to overlap. Thomas Ligotti’s first two collections were recently given the deluxe Penguin Classics reissue treatment. Michel Houellebecq wrote a book analyzing the horror of H. P. Lovecraft. The rise of literary horror is likely happening for the same reasons that more “literary” writers are also embracing science fiction and fantasy: it’s what they grew up on, and they don’t see any reason to change gears now. Some of that may also be a generational thing: the likes of Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Chuck Palahniuk are all generous with blurbs both within and without the genre of horror. (See also: the long shadow cast by Cormac McCarthy’s fiction, especially Blood Meridian.) Here’s a look at several recent books that may appeal to those who love a great scare and a great sentence in equal measure.

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The Unruly Lives of Fictional Superheroes

In the medium of comic book storytelling, superheroes are but one of many genres that the form can be used for. But unlike nearly every other genre that’s told using words, pictures, and panels, superheroes don’t necessarily translate into prose all that frequently. There are a few exceptions—the George R.R. Martin-created Wild Cards series, Austin Grossman’s novel Soon I Will Be Invincible—but, by and large, the number of novels about the lives of superheroes isn’t a massive one. It’s hard to say why: perhaps the archetypes of the genre are so well-established that they’re nearly impossible to avoid; perhaps it’s just harder to translate these kinds of stories into prose, as opposed to film.

That isn’t to say it’s impossible. As befits a book that takes its title from Superman’s secret base, Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude included a subplot about a ring that bestowed powers on its wearer. The result was a strain that blended superheroic DNA with a heavy dose of magical realism. And two new novels, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs and Fiona Maazel’s A Little More Human, each invoke superheroics alongside more urgent societal concerns. Though the two books are very different, both Lim and Maazel riff extensively on the nature of superheroes even as they introduce fictional superhumans of their own.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

Welcome to the New Wave of Politically-Conscious Horror

Earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, opened to critical accolades and quickly became a box office hit, and now it seems that Peele will be making another foray into the horror genre—one that has literary roots, this time. Specifically, he’s producing an adaptation for HBO of Matt Ruff’s novel Lovecraft Country, set in post-World War II America, and featuring an ensemble cast of characters who contend with fearsome supernatural entities and the even-more ominous presence of murderous racists across the nation. Ruff’s novel includes everything from secret mystical societies to interdimensional travel to body horror, giving Peele and his collaborators plenty to work with.

Among the many lessons that can be taken from the abundant success of both Get Out and Lovecraft Country is a reminder that horror can be used to elucidate powerful sociopolitical concepts, and explore ideas in a way where a more realistic narrative might fall short. Of course, these are far from the only recent works that have sought to blend politically conscious themes with the unsettling imagery of horror. Here’s a look at five recent books that do exactly that, from venturing into legacies of trauma to grappling with questions of race and class–all the while leaving the reader unsettled in the way that only the best horror can.

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The Monstrous and the Tragic: Kirsten Bakis’s Lives of the Monster Dogs

It’s been twenty years since Kirsten Bakis’s novel Lives of the Monster Dogs was first released. It wasn’t long after that that I first caught sight of its spine in a bookstore somewhere–probably either the Union Square Barnes & Noble or St. Marks Bookshop, both of which I frequented in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I don’t think I need to explain why the book caught my eye: its title is, after all, Lives of the Monster Dogs. And, as the back cover explained, that was not intended metaphorically: many of the characters of this novel are, in fact, dogs. Sentient dogs who walk upright and use prostheses to manipulate objects. (The image on the cover of the original paperback edition featured a wolflike figure wearing an elegant robe and using a cane.) So: a surreal and speculative story, along with provocative questions about what makes us human. What’s not to like?

After an initial rush of acclaim, Bakis’s novel has been out of print for a few years ago, which makes this reissue a particularly welcome occurrence. In his introduction to this new edition, Jeff VanderMeer notes that its contemporaries included the likes of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. He also positions it in a particular place within literature: “The brilliance of the approach, and its bravery, is that Bakis wants to show you not just what happened on her version of the island of Dr. Moreau, so to speak, but the aftermath.”

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

Altered Skulls, Body Modification, and Visceral Corruption: The Fiction of Jeremy Robert Johnson

On a trip to Portland, Oregon a few years ago, a writer friend of mine recommended that I check out the work of Jeremy Robert Johnson. I dutifully went to Powell’s a day or so later and headed home after having purchased a short novel called Extinction Journals. That book proved to be my introduction to Johnson’s surreal, visceral, and frequently unsettling body of work. One more descriptor, while we’re at it: highly entertaining. Whether he’s writing about bizarre body modification, demonic forces seeking to corrupt the souls of those they encounter, or strange methods of surviving life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Johnson brings a pulpy urgency to the page, which blends neatly with the frequently heady concepts that he utilizes in his fiction.

Extinction Journals reads like J.G. Ballard in his 60s-apocalyptic mode (think The Drowned World), spiked with a heady dose of hallucinogens and an irreverent attitude. It’s set after nuclear weapons have devastated the landscape. Its everyman protagonist, Dean, has managed to escape annihilation via a suit that incorporates a legion of cockroaches. (The President attempts a similar trick, albeit with a suit coated in Twinkies. It’s an approach which doesn’t work out quite as well for him.) There’s a surreal logic at work here, and it’s one that carries through as the plot becomes more contorted, involving a character who loses an arm to one set of ants and has it rebuilt by another. Strange body modifications become more prevalent as this short novel heads towards its climax, creating a sense of visceral unease and paving the way for further exploration of this theme in works to come.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

Lovecraft’s Depths, Reimagined: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

On the surface, Ruthanna Emrys’s novel Winter Tide seems to be a part of a greater trend in fantastic and horrific fiction: a work that utilizes the imagery and cosmology of H. P. Lovecraft while critiquing some of his more odious beliefs. Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom is another work that comes to mind that does thing; in a 2000 comic crossing over his series Planetary and The Authority, Warren Ellis featured a brief appearance from Lovecraft that led to the book’s heroes being repelled by his virulent racism. And Emrys’s novel falls firmly into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos: the events of The Shadow Over Innsmouth are part of its DNA, along with nods to some of Lovecraft’s other works. And the book’s cast features a cast of heroes who are far removed from the straight white men at the center of many of Lovecraft’s stories.

But Emrys is doing something subtler here as well: for all that this novel incorporates elements of Lovecraftian horror, the story she’s telling isn’t a fundamentally horrific one. Instead, it’s a kind of supernatural procedural—and one in which Emrys makes the subversive decision to treat figures who might have been deemed monstrous in Lovecraft’s work as the heroes, and the mysterious beings and ancient gods that were the source of so much dread as a means of transcendence.

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Revisiting Lovecraft, in Horror and in Ambiguity

Invoking the legacy of H.P. Lovecraft in fiction is 2017 is no easy task. On the one hand, you have his visionary take on horror, which remains influential to a host of writers; on the other, you have his loathsome racism that’s frequently inseparable from the stories he’s telling. A handful of nods to the Cthulhu Mythos in a story or novel can sometimes feel less like a warm homage and more of an oversight regarding the more noxious aspects of his body of work.

Some of the work that’s followed in Lovecraft’s footsteps hits many of the same terrifying beats, but opts for a very different sort of worldbuilding: expansive cosmic horror, but of a variety that isn’t beholden to a structure of racist or classist beliefs or spurious theories of racial or ethnic superiority. (I wrote about this in greater detail a few years ago.) Others opt for a different tactic: dealing head-on with Lovecraft’s racism while still finding a way to tap into the profoundly unsettling sense of horror and dread that he conveyed in his work. Last year, two of the most memorable cosmic horror books I read represented each camp: John Langan’s The Fisherman in the former, and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom in the latter.

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Series: Genre in the Mainstream

In the Time of Antoine Volodine: Unlikely Fables, Literary Dystopias, and Strange Futures

The writer who primarily uses the pseudonym Antoine Volodine for his writing falls neatly into the tradition of writers using multiple pen names. (Think Alice B. Sheldon; think Fernando Pessoa, who coined the concept of the literary heteronym.) The result is a hypnotic array of fictional worlds, many of them fantastic or speculative in nature, that link together as part of an even larger fictional universe. It’s a bold project, and one that balances surreal world-building alongside the creation of new and experimental literary traditions that may only exist in the pages of other novels.

Volodine’s 1998 novel Post-Exoticism in 10 Lessons, Lesson 11, translated from French into English by J. T. Mahany, is set in a near future in which an oppressive government has taken over and suppressed various cultural activities. The novel chronicles the members, movements, and works of the literati of this society. One of the writers alluded to here is named Manuela Draeger, one of Volodine’s other heteronyms, and in the years after its publication, a number of stories by Draeger have been published. An omnibus edition containing three of them—In the Time of the Blue Ball, North of the Wolverines, and Our Baby Pelicans—was published in an English translation by Brian Evenson by Dorothy, a Publishing Project in 2011. A note from the publisher provides some context: in the world of Volodine’s stories, Draeger is “a librarian in a post-apocalyptic prison camp who invents stories to tell to the children in the camp.” The stories in this volume make no allusion to that aspect of their creation; instead, they stand on their own, parts of a larger literary project that can also be enjoyed as standalone works.

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Beware the Retrofuture: Elan Mastai and Jack Womack Navigate the Problems of SciFi Nostalgia

What happens when the cost of a gleaming utopia is revealed? Nothing’s quite so narratively disorienting as the moment in which you learn that what you’d previously envisioned as an ideal society turns out to have a harrowing cost for a certain segment of the population. Warren Ellis and Chris Weston’s Ministry of Space is a perfect example of this: it tells the story of an alternate 20th century in which the U.K. took the lead in exploring and colonizing space. The result is visually resplendent: the design of the spacecraft looks simultaneously retro and boldly futuristic. It looks like a better world, a future that never was.

And then, at the very end, there’s a sting, as Ellis and Weston reveal the cost of these advancements, and the downside to a spacefaring nation that never shed its institutional prejudices as it began to reach for the stars. Suddenly those spaceships and orbiting stations looks a lot less inviting; that bold future we never had starts to look like one we were all lucky to avoid.

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The Craft of the Uncanny: Lessons in Storytelling from Percy, Gaiman, and Delany

Every writer creates stories differently, and finding a method that works best for you is an essential part of being a writer. There are plenty of ways to learn about the craft, from workshops to creative writing programs to online courses. Any and all of these can impart a sense of form, offer examples of stories or novels that illustrate particular narrative strengths, and help a writer fortify their own abilities and aesthetics. Another way to explore the craft of storytelling is, of course, to read about it. Over the years and decades, numerous writers have offered their thoughts and advice based on what they’ve learned–and, in some cases, taught.

When factoring in advice that focuses primarily on writing about the speculative, the fantastic, or the uncanny, even more wrinkles develop. But there are a small group of writers who’ve tackled the subject–most recently, Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction. Percy’s novels have encompassed the realistic and the speculative: his The Wilding explored the legacies of trauma and the nature of violence in realistic terms, while his Red Moon took on similar issues in a world similar to our own where a condition like lycanthropy is widespread across the human population. He’s also in the midst of a run as the writer of DC Comics’ Green Arrow. In other words, Percy’s storytelling chops extend across various media and genres.

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Altered Bodies, Familiar Histories: Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds

The stories featured in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s collection When the World Wounds encompass a variety of styles and approaches to the fantastic and the speculative. Some explore familiar settings and relationships, while one opts for one of the most challenging feats in science fiction: accurately conveying a set of alien perceptions in terms that come off as both lucid and not overly expository.

At times, the tendency of this collection to move from milieu to milieu means that the full scope of Salaam’s work is somewhat obscured; after finishing it, though, the full breadth of Salaam’s range becomes clear. This is a collection in which the most challenging of subjects are taken up, handled deftly, and turned into the stuff of compelling drama.

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Haunted Places, People, and Books: Listening for Ghosts in Fiction and Non-Fiction

“I spent several years traveling the country, listening for ghosts.” So writes Colin Dickey early on in his recent book Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places. Dickey’s previous books have explored subjects like grave robbing and religious fanaticism before, and Ghostland falls into the same category: deeply entertaining, evoking a powerful sense of location, and juxtaposing (with apologies to John Ford) both legend and fact. Dickey’s book is structured around a series of profiles of different places, each of them haunted: hotels and mansions and jails, each with their own evocative strains of history.

While Dickey does encounter a few mysterious phenomena, this isn’t as supernaturally-tinged a work of nonfiction as, say, Alex Mar’s recent Witches of America. Instead, his goal is more to examine why we’re so drawn to ostensibly haunted places, and what makes tales of hauntings so relevant over the years, decades, and centuries.

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Futuristic Diseases, Futuristic Cures: On Science Fiction, Medicine, and Mortality

Science fiction allows readers and writers to experience an array of possible futures. In novels and short stories, authors have explored advances in topics as vast as technology, transportation, space exploration, and politics. Want to know what the existence of teleportation technology might do to questions of ethics and identity? Check out James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur.” Utopias and dystopias, for good and for ill of the people living under them, have been explored in countless works. But speculation about the future of medicine and disease enters into a trickier realm.

If you’re a writer exploring the nature of illness and healing in the future, from what angle can you best approach it? Some might choose to explore a world in which all disease is curable—and, perhaps, to focus in on an exception to that, and its effects on both the person afflicted and the wider society. Another might opt to focus on a specific treatment of a specific malady. And still others can use settings commonly associated with medicine for explorations of other science fictional themes.

[Katherine Mortenhoe, Sector General, The Child Garden, and more…]